Why You Should Read Malian Newspapers
Domestic papers are a valuable resource for anyone trying to stay on top of local events in Bamako, but even for those analyzing Mali from afar, I think there is tremendous academic value in following local papers. Mali has a vibrant press culture and even the most questionable of rags offer insight regarding the political discourse in Bamako. Far from unsophisticated rumor-mills, Bamako papers shape narratives throughout the country and analysts who ignore local press do so at their peril.
A few “system requirements” are needed to find analytical insight in Mali’s press. First, you need to read French, and by read, I mean comprehend enough to parse out an interesting headline from the rest and paste the article into google translate. Second, you need to know that Malian journalists write for a Malian audience. They use coded language and bits of lingo that require a degree of familiarity with Malian culture. Not every passing reference will be easily understood. Third, you need to understand the information ecosystem in which Malian journalists must survive and how these conditions shape what makes it to print.
There is a lot of excellent work being done by local journalists who are operating under difficult and often dangerous circumstances (several have been assaulted by various actors), but as Gregory Mann writes:
Some of the articles, however, are clearly hatchet jobs set up against one or another political figure (e.g., Person X has a secret deal with rebel movement Y, which we know because we captured a cell phone with his number in the call log…). All of which is to say, reader beware!
Mali’s heavily politicized press culture is a product of its environment. For much of Mali’s history, the media sector was a state-owned monopoly under the single-party regime of Moussa Traore. The first wave of privately-owned newspapers and radio stations came in the early 1990s following the coup d’etat in 1991 and subsequent free and fair elections in 1992.
Private, french-language newspapers flourished despite low literacy rates. Local radio empowered communities with the opportunity to control programming and brought information – news, music, preaching, educational content – to new consumers in local languages. These radio stations represented a veritable paradigm shift, as local hosts began curating content from daily newspapers and using the latest news from the capital as a starting point for debate and discussion in local languages. Countless communities once considered outside the orbit of the Malian state, such as those in the extreme north, were suddenly within the gravitational pull of Bamako.
Malians and outside donors used the medium as a catalyst for disseminating important and locally pertinent information. The ministry of health, NGOs and aid agencies, for example, now regularly use radio to inform mothers where and when they can bring their children to be vaccinated.
A second wave of private newspapers occurred during the Amadou Toumani Toure (ATT) era, accompanied by an influx of aid dollars that accelerated the proliferation of community radio stations. In the case of newspapers, however, it is not clear that this proliferation was driven by public demand for news information. In fact, there is quite a bit of anecdotal evidence to suggest otherwise.
Journalists in Mali are not well compensated and tend to get paid by the scoop. The wage structure incentivizes sensational reporting and as a result, actors looking to push their own narratives were quick to exploit this dynamic. Thus emerged a symbiotic relationship between journalists, whose editors demanded they bring in big stories, and political parties, government officials and religious leaders who were happy to pay for allies in the press corps.
With enough time, this system leads to an inevitable sorting in which papers became more and more partisan. One local analyst told me that much of the “second wave” of newspapers was a result of various actors wanting to create new avenues to either counter or support the ATT government.
All this is to say that while Malian newspapers are not the most reliable sources for hard news, they are worth your time because a considerable amount of public debate and political sniping takes place on their pages. In the same edition of Le Republicain, for example, one can read a measured, insightful analysis and a political knee-capping.
For Americans, I think the analog is cable news.
One such example is the way Bamako’s press treats the MNLA. While Western outlets tend to describe what transpired in April as the result of a secular, ethnic-Tuareg separatist rebellion that was “hijacked” by Islamist groups, the domestic discourse is using very different language. In local outlet after local outlet, non-Tuareg politicians from the north, members of the northern diaspora and analysts in Bamako have been going out of their way to blame the MNLA for what has come to pass. In print, one reads that the MNLA “opened the door… they started all this” or “they knew better than to collaborate with Islamists but did it anyways.” Editorials regularly refer to the MNLA as “opportunists”, “criminals” and “traitors.”
The merits of these claims range from the substantive to the obtuse, and such a discussion is way beyond the purview of this post. The important takeaway is that those who read the Malian press will be privy to this discourse and have a better sense of how non-Tuareg (as well as Tuareg who don’t support the MNLA) might react to external proposals to “leverage” or “cut a deal” with the MNLA. These are important details.
The treatment of the MNLA in local press is just one example of the disconnect between the international and local conversation regarding Mali. My recommendation is that you follow malijet.com, which aggregates articles by local papers. If you use a RSS reader, all the better, as you will be able to count on an article dump several times a day. Again, you need not read every article and doing so would be an inefficient and unrewarding use of your time. But there is something to be said for following local discourse, as local actors will be the ones shaping, supporting, undermining and scuttling political and security outcomes in Mali.
It might seem obvious and even obnoxious, but if you are a policy-maker, analyst or commentator new to the Mali file, my unsolicited and unoriginal advice is the following: Read more. Write less.